Big stimulus bills fall to federal workforce to carry out programs despite capacity constraints

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Should Congress go ahead and pass legislation to spend $1, $2, $5 or $6 trillion, a giant burden will fall on the federal workforce like a sack of hay. Will the government have controls in place for the spending programs? Will it even have the basic capacity? For some expert thinking Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to Professor Bob Tobias, of the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Bob, these programs, these stimulus bills are these trillions would fall on eventually the federal bureaucracy to turn them into programs. What are the challenges you see with this level of spending?

Bob Tobias: Well, Tom, it’s huge. I mean, it’s projected to be about $4.1 trillion, which is more than five times the amount of the bill that President Obama signed in 2009, to implement the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And I think, actually, the canary in the coal mine is seen with the recent Supreme Court ruling that said that delaying evictions can no longer occur. So in February, Congress allocated $21.6 billion for rent support, and only a small part of it has been distributed. Here we are at the end of August. So it required a brand new program, coordination between federal, state and local officials, and they haven’t distributed the money and millions of people are going to be evicted. So I think that’s a premonition for what could occur with this $4.1 trillion, which has many new programs, expansion of existing programs. And if the agencies don’t start planning now, to create and distribute that money, we’re going to have many more of what we see today.

Tom Temin: And there were a couple of different business loan programs under the first stimulus bill in the pandemic that President Trump signed into law. And some of those were forgiven, some were not, there’s still some money unspent. But there are also instances of businesses that did not need the money that simply said, “Wow, here’s a bonanza, let me get my chunk of cash from the federal government,” even though they weren’t actually needy businesses in trouble. So another control, another fine point, I guess, what you’re saying then is that a lot more planning on the details has to occur so that these programs are fraud free, and do yet at the same time have clear rules, clear regulations for both the bureaucracy and the recipients of the programs?

Bob Tobias: Exactly, Tom, I think there are certainly the idea of putting a program together to make it work is number one. Number two, are we going to prevent corruption, with the creation and the implementation of this program? And number three, are we going to achieve the goals and objectives that Congress has articulated that that should occur. And with the amount of money that’s involved here, those are very, very challenging goals to put together in a very short period of time. So I’m suggesting that planning should be starting now.

Tom Temin: That’s right back in [2009] as you mentioned, the ARRA did come with a oversight mechanism, the RAT Board – the Recovery and Accountability Transparency Board. And that was simultaneous with the going out of the money so that you could see the spending, there were maps and so forth of where the money was going, ostensibly for infrastructure, in this case of the latest couple of bills, it seems like the oversight and auditing functions are playing catch up a month, almost a year later than the money was spent.

Bob Tobias: That’s correct. And so I would suggest the Congress, as it considers this package of $4.1 trillion, that it replicates what it did with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and create a board of governors that has the responsibility for avoiding corruption and for ensuring that congressional intent is achieved. And also, I think that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated funding for the board and additional funding for the inspector general. So they did a good job with that act. And I hope Congress will do the same with this spending.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias, professor in the key Executive Leadership Program at American University. And the other question is, does the federal government, given the size that it is the 2.1-or-so million federal employees, does it have the basic human capacity and organizational capacity to take on this level of new programming in the first place?

Bob Tobias: Well, I certainly don’t believe there enough federal employees on the rules now to implement the programs that are envisioned by Congress. So obviously, hiring, training would come after the planning necessary to determine how many people are needed. But also, a recent GAO report pointed out that only 50% about 50% of the program staff have the skills needed to collect, analyze and use data necessary to determine whether programs are achieving their goal. And only 30% of agencies are investing in the technology necessary to gather the data. So this is another, I think Achilles heel in the process. You have to be able to evaluate the programs to determine whether or not congressional intent is being achieved. And data is the basis for that analysis.

Tom Temin: So the real danger here then is that the benefits from the programs could be somewhat ephemeral if all of these controls, and the rules and regulations are not in place properly in the anti-corruption schemes that are needed, but the debt itself will be very real?

Bob Tobias: Well, clearly. The money will be spent. And the question is, can the government – can the federal government, can federal employees actually implement this program? And one of the real challenges, Tom, is that those who create public policy, like members of Congress think that the game is done when they pass the legislation and the president signs it. That’s the beginning for the federal workforce. That’s the time when they have to spring into action and implement what Congress has created. And there’s going to be a lot on their plates. Planning should start now.

Tom Temin: And I guess the other possibility, then would be that simply because there are not enough federal employees and not enough internal capacity, this could be a gigantic bonanza for services contractors who would do a lot of the administrative work are the programs consistent with what they can do properly with not being government?

Bob Tobias: Well, I hope not Tom because, you know, we pay a lot more when we we hire contractors to carry out governmental work. So again, that’s why planning needs to start now.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. As always, thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom.

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